I’ve Got Problems: Too Much Text!

After my first I’ve Got Problems post, I was immediately contacted by a few readers with specific problems. Avoiding my problems with procrastination, I immediately began working to provide them with options for their problems. That is right after a long vacation in Chicago, some 23 other posts and much careful thought (note no serial comma, just for Paul). Sorry that I put it off until now. You more than likely have solved your problem by this point in time and should be writing this post yourself.

I was contacted by an interpreter who does a fair amount of design work. We will call her “Chris” for the purpose in this post in order to protect her from her co-workers who have created this problem. I will call myself “Mr. Shea” in this post in order to protect myself from the obviously girly name that my parents bestowed upon me and that has created many gender-confused emails and phone calls in the course of my life. It is true, I am a man.

Chris’ problem is related to the amount of text that she has been given to layout in a newsletter. She is unsure what to do with way too much text. Her supervisor (an interpreter) is providing her with the text and has not been receptive to her hints and suggestions to edit or cut copy. In fact Chris has been told that all of the text is “valuable and pertinent information for their museum’s membership and should be included in the newsletter.”

So, what can you do with all this text to make the newsletter inviting to read, mailable and visually appealing? My knee-jerk response would be to provide the proof to the supervisor with type in the smallest point size possible that would allow it all to fit on one page. This would illustrate the need for cutting copy. This is not the best way to ensure future employment, but could be personally satisfying. (Designers are jerks. Paul will take on this issue in a few weeks.)

Here are some legitimate options. The first step that I would take would be to layout a grid that allows plenty of room for vertical columns. Four columns on an 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper is the max. Make sure the gutters are comfortably wide but not awkward. Think personal space. You know when that office acquaintance is standing just a little too close. Keep the text rag right (also called left justified). The shape provided by this type of margin will create counter space that will give the reader’s eye a break from time to time. You can also open up the line spacing or increase the leading to make it easier to read. Don’t go too crazy with the line spacing but follow the guidelines in chapter 4 of IBD. Dial down the point size on body type and dial up headlines or leading lines. I wouldn’t use anything smaller than an 8 point type, and 10 is preferred. Keep other page elements (page numbers, title bars and other newsletter stuff) as simple and small as possible. If the text is that important then the text should be the focus.

If you provide the best layout possible considering what you were given and the document is still too large, your supervisor may be more interested in revisiting it for an edit. If not then at least you know that you have maximized the text in the space allowed and made it legible. Whether or not it gets read is the real issue.

The next “I’ve Got Problems” post will deal with this confession: “I’ve been told I need to think outside the way I design things and that I should break some rules.” Being somewhat an expert on breaking rules, I feel comfortable taking on this problem so look for my confessions in future blogs.

Serial commas: With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

Call it what you will: the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma. It is the cause of much consternation to writers and editors. It causes fights in bars (okay, discussions in libraries). Devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style insist on its use. Those who adhere to Associated Press style consider it superfluous. And there are those who say that it doesn’t matter whether you use the serial comma or not, so long as you are consistent.

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

I have always been a believer in the serial comma because I think that it eliminates the possibility for confusion. If you’re looking at a list of 1, 2, and 3, it’s clear that 1, 2, and 3 are three distinct items. Consider the example of this hypothetical book dedication from the Chicago Manual of Style:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope

You can picture the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style chuckling smugly at the notion that without the serial comma, readers might think that the hypothetical author’s parents are Mother Teresa and the pope. The absence of a serial comma might cause the reader to think that “Mother Teresa and the pope” is one unit equal to the author’s parents. As a believer in the serial comma, I’m laughing right along with them.

If you look at the popular style guides that do not use the serial comma, they are mostly related to the news industry (Associated Press, The Times, The New York Times, etc.). As a former journalism student and journalist, I can tell you that many styles espoused by newspapers are designed more for conserving ink than for clarity of writing (that’s why you see single quotes used in headlines instead of the more correct double quote). The style guides that call for the serial comma (the American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name a few) are more concerned with clarity of writing.

Opponents of the serial comma will argue that it can sometimes actually cause confusion rather than clear it up. A surprisingly engaging and in-depth entry on Wikipedia uses this example, again a hypothetical book dedication, this time inspired by editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

Here, the reader might believe that Ayn Rand is the author’s mother when the serial comma is used, but without the serial comma, the confusion is eliminated (“To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”). I argue that you have to work a lot harder to create a scenario where the serial comma causes confusion rather than eliminating it. Another example from the same Wikipedia entry is this:

My favorite types of sandwiches are pastrami, ham, cream cheese and peanut butter and jelly.

Without a comma after “cream cheese,” the reader is not sure whether the peanut butter belongs with cream cheese or jelly. With that, I’m off to the library to pick a fight with a journalist and then go out for cream cheese and peanut butter sandwiches.